What is the purpose of "How to Become a Writer"?
The purpose of "How to Become a Writer" is to humorously present the story of Francie's journey to becoming a writer. The amused tone is established in the first paragraph when the narrator tells the would-be writer who might read this story to "try to be something, anything, else," presenting "movie star" as a seemingly more viable option (and we know how many thousands of aspiring actors are currently waiting tables in L.A.). Francie only seems to become a writer by accident. She enters college as a child psychology major and ends up in a creative writing class because of a computer error. Through a series of rather silly situations—and in spite of everyone telling her that she has a "ridiculous" notion of plot—Francie sort of perseveres. She always returns to writing, as though she cannot help herself.
Certainly, neither the dream nor the journey to become a writer sounds very appealing. Perhaps it is simply too much pressure. For example, the narrator says, "You will read somewhere that all writing has to do with one's genitals. Don't dwell on this. It will make you nervous." The irony is that there really is not a set of steps that one can follow to then "become" a writer: the notion of a "how-to" on this subject is already a bit absurd. Just as Francie seems to become a writer against all odds, this story becomes a story against all odds as well. Its plot might seem ridiculous, like Francie's, but it parallels her rambling journey.
The purpose of "How to Become a Writer" is to make light of the tortured artist stereotype, which afflicts writers of all kinds, but especially fiction writers, like Lorrie Moore herself. Lorrie Moore is clearly aware of this image of writers, and she uses her knowledge of this stereotypical image to her advantage as she writes the story from Francie's point of view.
The humor in the story is the main element that fulfills Moore's purpose of making light of the stereotype. For example, Moore uses hyperbole skillfully, exaggerating Francie's teenaged earnestness by describing her haiku sequences about "thwarted desire." At the age of fifteen, it is unlikely that Francie has had enough experience with thwarted desire to write about it so copiously, but her deeply felt, yet inappropriate ambition is a characteristic of the tortured artist stereotype.
As well, Moore employs the second person, which enhances the feeling that this short story is a tongue-in-cheek guide for readers who want to become writers themselves. The use of the present tense emphasizes the sense that the insights are actually instructions to be taken literally, which is also funny, as becoming a writer is not really about following the right instructions at all, but more about practice, experience, and skill with the form.
Francie, the speaker of Moore’s "How to Become a Writer," comments a number of times about how she has been told, by teachers and fellow students, that the plots of her stories are weak. Superficially, the same comment might be made about "How to Become a Writer." Therefore it is important to note that the story does indeed have a plot. One may perceive that the time lapse may be as much as seven or eight or more years, from high school to the period after college graduation. The period is that of the Vietnam War (1965–1975), for Francie describes a brother who has served in Vietnam, has been wounded, and has returned home. Despite the episodic nature of "How to Become a Writer," and despite its lack of direct narrative presentation, the story also dramatizes a conflict. On the one hand, Francie adheres to the view that writing is an irresistible outgrowth of either nature or affliction (writing is "a lot like having polio" [paragraph 41])—the idea being that a writer is born, not made (poeta nascitur, non fit). On the other hand, the "how to" title seems committed to the opposing view that writing is a learned skill or science.